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For UB's pursuit of NCAA Tournament berth, every possession matters

In the waning moments of the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team’s 88-64 win against Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 12, fourth-year coach Nate Oats asked officials to review of an out-of-bounds call that he believed should have given possession to the Bulls.

Even with his team leading by more than 20 points, Oats knew his quibble could have implications. If the ball belonged to the Bulls, they needed to make the most of that possession.

“I told the referees, ‘With the new NET, our efficiency is a big deal,’ ” said Oats, whose team hosts Eastern Michigan at 7 p.m. Friday at Alumni Arena. “We can’t just throw the last two minutes away. We’ve done that in the past, where we’re up and it should have been a 30-point win, and it ends up going from 22 to 24 to 16 rather than up to 30.

“That’s a big deal. Your efficiency should be one thing and it ends up another. People don’t realize it in the last two (minutes).”

The NCAA unveiled the first NCAA Evaluation Tool — the NET rankings — in November. The rankings are a standard measurement the NCAA Tournament selection committee will use to rate Division I basketball teams for its tournament seedings. The NET rankings replace the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), but the NCAA's standards for determining the new rankings require teams to make the most of their possessions, even those that come in the late moments of a lopsided victory.

The NET weighs five data points: team value index/strength of schedule, winning percentage, adjusted win percentage, which takes into account the location of a win or a loss (home, away or neutral site); scoring margin, which is capped at 10 points, and net offensive and defensive efficiency.

That’s why Oats wanted to find out if the No. 16 Bulls (16-1, 4-0 MAC), in fact, had the ball on a possession/out-of-bounds play in the late minutes against the RedHawks. With the NET rankings, possessions matter.

“It becomes a factor, especially late-game, if the game’s out of hand,” Florida coach Michael White told AL.com earlier this month. "If the game has been decided, whether you’re about to take an 'L,' or get a 'W,' your last few possessions offensively and defensively, sounds like you’ve got to finish as strong as possible. Every possession counts. The rules are what they are, they’re gonna evaluate what they evaluate, and we’ve just got to do the best we can with the rules that are given to us."

Offensive efficiency is points scored per 100 possessions while defensive efficiency is points allowed per 100 possessions. Net efficiency is a calculation of offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency.

Prior to games on Thursday, college basketball analytics site KenPom.com ranked UB 14th in the nation in offensive efficiency (114.9) and 45th in the nation in defensive efficiency (95.4).

“The margin of victory component does not reward a scoring margin of greater than 10, while the efficiency component does reward scoring margin greater than 10,” Ken Pomeroy, the creator of KenPom.com, said in an email to the News. “So there is still incentive to win games by a lot if one's goal is to achieve a higher NET ranking.”

And efficiency matters.

“If you’re up 20 and all the sudden they score on the last five possessions and you don’t score, it tilts the whole efficiency equation,” Oats said. “Unless they have some type of formula where if it’s a blowout, whatever they consider a blowout, and you don’t want to count the efficiency in the last two minutes or whatever minutes of a blowout, I don’t know how they do it, but until you figure that out, it matters, all the way up to the last buzzer.”

Crunching the numbers and maximizing data points is necessary for Buffalo, the only MAC team in the top 50 in the NET rankings. By comparison, the ACC has eight teams and the SEC has seven teams in the top 50, which gives those schools a better chance to earn quality wins and strengthen tournament resumes during their conference schedules.

Essentially, playing your best basketball is vital, even when the game appears tilted greatly in favor of one opponent. That’s why, in the late moments of UB’s win against Miami (Ohio), Oats elected to keep starting guard Jayvon Graves and forward Jeenathan Williams, who averages 9.5 minutes a game, on the floor.

Four days earlier, UB dug into its bench in the final minutes of a 110-80 win against Toledo, but kept two of its starters on the court in the final six minutes.

The Bulls also don’t have any eligible transfers or healthy walk-ons to fill those final minutes right now, and forward Dom Johnson is out because of a sprained ankle. Because of that, Oats makes a point to impress the necessity of maintaining large leads the Bulls have built upon UB’s bench players who enter in the final minutes of one-sided games.

“I’m telling them, ‘You’ve got to quit doing this to us. You can’t take a 22-point lead down to 16. If it’s 22, you guys have got to close it and it’s got to be 25 to 30,’ ” Oats said.

“I’m going to coach those guys hard, all the way to the final buzzer, knowing that the analytics and efficiency (matter), and knowing it’s the right way to coach. Those guys need to play. If we need them to step in, they can’t get in and take plays off. I’m not trying to rub anything into a coach, but I’m trying to coach those players as hard as they can be coached."

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